Rome view: a different Europe?

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Despite widespread concern about Italy’s political uncertainty and its way to get out of the gridlock, what emerges from the latest Eurobarometer is that Italians seem to want more Europe. Although confidence in the EU has fallen in most of the polled countries (see this blog post by my colleague José Ignacio Torreblanca), when asked about leaving the Union and the single currency, the answer was mostly “no”. Only one percent of the 10,321 Italians interviewed expect the country to leave the EU, and the euro is considered (although only by 31 percent) the second biggest achievement of the Union after the free movement of people, goods and services. 

Solving the euro crisis continues to be an important issue for many. 59 percent of Italian respondents expect the EU to be involved in finding a solution (ten points above the average, although four below the results of the previous poll in May 2012). But despite the improvement in the situation by the end of 2012 it’s clear that the crisis may be changing how Europeans see the Union (President Van Rompuy noted that "solving the crisis together is vital as what is at stake is much more than just monetary operations, it is the European project"). Although José Ignacio Torreblanca suggests that “Europe has lost its citizens”, I am more positive (at least about Italy), with my views backed by the latest Eurobarometer, and even the recent election.

51 percent of Italian respondents still consider themselves European citizens (last time the figure was below 50 percent). While no significant patterns emerge on the basis of gender or age, there is a noticeable disparity between the 66 percent of managers, the 44 percent of unemployed and the 42 percent of retired people. European citizenship receives also higher support from the most educated segment and is higher in the north east of the country (60 percent), compared to the 39 percent from central Italy. Despite the overall figure being remarkably high given the impact of the crisis in Italy, it is noticeably lower than the 74 percent recorded in Germany and Poland.

This positivity towards Europe is capital that should not be wasted. We need to work on a double track, taking immediate and concrete action as well as working towards a wider vision.

On the first track we have already two opportunities: the renegotiation of the EU budget for 2014-2020 (rejected by the European Parliament earlier today), and the next European Council, which will take place from tomorrow (14-15 March). Unfortunately, in rejecting the budget the European Parliament did not question the overall spending set by the EU leaders last February: it only placed some conditionalities[1]. Last month EU leaders all claimed victory for their own country over the budget negotiations. Mario Monti, for example, said he was glad he managed to save €500 million for Italy. But this was just a Pyrrhic victory. Cutting the EU budget will not help creating the “more Europe” leaders claim to want. These cuts will bind Europe for the next seven years, but at least the Parliament may succeed in obtaining a review clause which allows for mid-term assessment for the next budget period.

Tomorrow’s European Council, which will take place one year after the adoption of the fiscal compact, should start a “second phase” devoted to growth, flexibility and fighting unemployment. It will be the last European Council for Mario Monti as Italian Prime Minister. Monti has already held consultations with the “first comer-but not winner” of the elections, Pier Luigi Bersani. The two discussed what is in the interests for Italy and for “more Europe”, agreeing that the social dimension of the crisis needs to find its place on the leaders’ discussion table.

The importance of the social dimension is a crucial point that has been disregarded since the beginning of the crisis. Economists tell us that fiscal austerity measures coupled with structural reforms are working, and that we just need more time and should be patient. But, as the electoral vote shows, there is no more time and no more patience. The process has already taken too long, and further delays with unbearably high social costs may take too long to prevent a revolution (youth unemployment is currently running at 40 percent). This is why a success for Italy and for Europe as a whole at this coming Council would be more flexibility. In particular Italy needs to come home with a real victory, not a Pyrrhic one, such as the possibility to exclude certain elements from the public debt calculation, such as investments for youth employmen and debts owed by public administrations to businesses (which in Italy amount to €71 billion). This would relaunch the whole Italian system much more than any cut to the European budget. Whether the European partners will agree on such a concession is still as uncertain as the future of Italy itself: European leaders may want more guarantees on who is going to run the country and make the best use of such flexibility.

These are quick actions that can be taken in a very short period of time. But, as I said, we also need vision. We need to be clear about what kind of Europe we want. It seems that, at least in Italy, both citizens and the business community are asking for a real political union. Again, according to the Eurobarometer, the euro is perceived by Italians as a means to an end, an instrument to create more Europe and not a stand-alone goal. The Eurobarometer figures show a strong demand for more Europe, for a different kind of Europe, for a more democratic Europe: a Europe that at the moment is only dreamed of, that takes care of the real economy and real life, rather than only fiscal policies. All this fits perfectly with the outcome of the Italian February elections. As I have already argued the message is a clear demand for change for both Italy and for Europe. There is no anti-Europeanism in there. Italians simply want a different Europe, with less austerity, more flexibility and investments in the real economy, and a radical change towards a united, not asymmetrical, Europe.


[1] 1) Member States should cover €14 billion in accumulated payment requests this year; 2) flexibility for the re-allocation of unspent funds from one budget heading to another and from one year to the next; 3) a review clause, which would allow the Commission to conduct a mid-term assessment for the next budget period; 4) increased revenue, for example from a tax on financial transactions.

 

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